Sunday, December 1, 2013

Belarus: "Colours of the Native Country: Stories by Byelorussian Writers"

This edited volume of stories translated from Byelorussian appeared in 1972 and spans roughly 1920 to the late 1960s.  It is not available commercially now, although interested readers might be able to request it via Inter-Library Loan. The copy I borrowed came from Harvard U.

The authors of these stories played by the rules in force in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic of their time. The men are all strong, the women virtuous, the children above average. Men work in honest jobs on the railway, as official soldiers against the fascists (Germany in WWII) or later, as guerrilla forces ready to take a stand against the "capitalists" (Western Europe in the 60s). Women are left behind to bear children, toil the fields, grieve, or be killed by the enemy of the moment.

The tales read like fables, with stock characters played by people, not animals, and tidy, moralistic endings. The first story is an actual fable, with a not-so-wise crow and some migrating storks who really know something about arboriculture (the issue is a dying oak tree). A story about soldiers is one of the few with character development: A stolid big fellow reacts quite logically (if passive aggressively) to the continual sharp criticisms of his much smaller, impatient commanding officer. Near-disaster ensues but the big guy triumphs through his dedication to the well-being of the team.

Significant portions of the stories focus on Belarus's natural assets, including several major rivers. In a nation not much larger than the state of Kansas, two of those major rivers are separated by less than 200 km (about 125 miles), yet flow in opposite directions. The Pripyat near the southern border flows eastward to join the Dnieper, on its southward journey to the Black Sea. From roughly the center of the country, not too far from Minsk, the capital, the Neman (also called the Nyoman) starts a journey westward toward Lithuania and ultimately connects Belarus to the Baltic Sea.

The nation also has extensive forests, and several of the stories related directly or indirectly to woods. One of my favorite sections describes the trees the narrator observes along his walk to visit an unusual woman:

"There is a great deal in the autumn wood that interrupts one's quiet flow of thoughts...The leaves of the beautiful birch tree lay scattered around it in the shape of a remarkable fan, shining like tiny gold coins on grass still green...The leaves of the oaks make a soft dark-brown bed under their parent trees....A maple leaf, sparking like a star from out of another universe suddenly appears in front of me on the road...How did it get here? Ah! Over there--a little maple tree..." (p. 45, in a story called "A Plain Woman" by Ivan Shamyakin).

Modern Belarus is described by some as the last hold-out of the Soviet republics. Alexander Lukashenko is the strong man in power (since 1994) and various indexes put the country last among European nations for democracy and personal freedoms. In addition, the southeastern portion of the country remains severely affected by fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The curious might want to check the blog of world-reader John Brookes, describing  The Trace of the Black Wind, his book of choice for Belarus.

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